Navy pilot Michael "Scott" Speicher was shot down over the Iraq desert on the first night of the Gulf War in 1991 and it was there he apparently was buried by Bedouins, the sand hiding him from the world's mightiest military all these years.
In a sorrowful resolution to the nearly two-decade-old question about his fate, the Pentagon disclosed Sunday it had received new information last month from an Iraqi citizen that led Marines to recover bones and skeletal fragments enough for a positive identification.
The Marines were led to the spot by an Iraqi who said he was there when Bedouin tribesmen found Speicher dead from the crash, reports CBS News correspondent Kimberly Dozier.
"He remembered the plane going down and he remembered the Bedouins burying the body," Navy spokesman Rear Adm. Frank Thorp said.
Speicher's family issued a statement Sunday saying, "The news that Captain Speicher has died on Iraqi soil after ejecting from his aircraft has been difficult for the family, but his actions in combat, and the search for him, will forever remain in their hearts and minds."
President Barack Obama called the news "a reminder of the selfless service that led him to make the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom."
"My thoughts and prayers are with his family, and I hope that the recovery of his remains will bring them a needed sense of closure," Obama said in a statement issued Sunday.
Former President George H.W. Bush, who was commander in chief in 1991, said, "We already knew he was a hero, one who helped lead our way to a historic victory in the Gulf, but now his family and countrymen know and history will finally record that he was one of the very first patriots to give his life in the liberation of Kuwait."
Shot down over west-central Iraq on a combat mission in his FA-18 Hornet on Jan. 17, 1991, Speicher was declared killed by the Pentagon hours later. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney went on television and announced the U.S. had suffered its first casualty of the war.
The 33-year-old father of two was not supposed to fly that day.
In 2000, his shipmates told "60 Minutes" that he had refused to be left behind. As the jets approached their target, a fellow pilot saw a flash where Speicher's plane had been.
"It was just an incredible anti-aircraft barrage," said pilot Bob Stumpf told "60 Minutes"
He was at first declared killed in action. But without remains, doubts grew. Ten years later, the Navy changed his status to missing in action, citing an absence of evidence that Speicher had died. In October 2002, the Navy switched his status to "missing/captured," although it has never said what evidence it had that he ever was in captivity. More reviews followed, without definitive answers.
"No matter what we were committed to finding either Captain Speicher alive, or, if we couldn't find him alive, to find his remains. His status never mattered as far as our search was concerned," Thorp said.
After the fall of Baghdad, troops scoured Iraqi prisons, looking for evidence. All they found were the initials MSS carved on the wall, leaving investigators to wonder if Michael Scott Speicher had been held there, Dozier reports.
The family Speicher left behind, from outside Jacksonville, Fla., continued to press for the military to do more.
His story never waned in Jacksonville. A large banner flying outside a firefighters' credit union has a photo of him with the words: "Free Scott Speicher." At his church, a memorial was put up in his honor. The tennis complex at his alma mater, Florida State University, was named for him.
A high school classmate who helped form the group "Friends Working to Free Scott Speicher" said Sunday his biggest fear was that Speicher had been taken alive and tortured.
"This whole thing has been so surreal for all of the people who have known Scott," said Nels Jensen, 52, who now lives in Arkansas.
Jensen said the group was frustrated the military didn't initially send a search and rescue team after the crash, and then grew more perplexed as reports of his possible capture emerged. "Never again will our military likely not send out a search and rescue party for a downed serviceman," Jensen said.
To the top Navy officer, the discovery is evidence of the military's commitment to bring its troops home. "Our Navy will never give up looking for a shipmate, regardless of how long or how difficult that search may be," said Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of Naval Operations.
Over the years, critics contended the Navy had not done enough, particularly right after the crash, to search for Speicher. A lieutenant commander when he went missing, Speicher later reached the rank of captain because he kept receiving promotions while his status was unknown.
Family spokeswoman Cindy Laquidara said relatives learned Saturday that Speicher's remains had been found. "The family's proud of the way the Defense Department continued on with our request" to not abandon the search, she said. "We will be bringing him home."
In a statement issued Sunday by Laquidara, the family said, "Although nothing can fill the void left by Captain Speicher's death, we find some solace in having transformed the search process, so that no serviceman or woman is ever, ever, left behind again."
Obama thanked the Marines who recovered Speicher's remains. "As with all our service men and women considered Missing in Action, we remain steadfast in our determination to bring our American heroes home," he said.
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 finally gave investigators the chance to search inside Iraq. Speicher's family including two college-age children who were toddlers when he disappeared believed more evidence would surface as Iraq grew more stable.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., planned to take down the POW/MIA flag he had placed outside his office when Speicher went missing.
"These children can move on with their lives and know what a hero their father was and he died in the service of his country," Nelson told reporters at a news conference at his office in Jacksonville.
A number of new leads did surface after the invasion of Iraq, including the discovery of what some believed were the initials "MSS" scratched into the wall of an Iraqi prison. More than 50 sites were checked by military search crews in the months after the invasion hospitals, prisons, security archives, homes and the original site where Speicher's plane crashed, about 100 miles north of the Saudi Arabian border.
Crews first visited the site in 1995. They found wings, the canopy and unexploded ordnance, but the cockpit and Speicher were missing.
Investigators excavated a potential grave site in Baghdad in 2005, tracked down Iraqis said to have information about Speicher and made numerous other inquiries.
Officials said Sunday that they got new information last month from an Iraqi citizen, prompting Marines stationed in the western province of Anbar to visit a location in the desert that was believed to be the crash site. The Iraqi said he knew of two other Iraqis who recalled an American jet crashing and the remains of the pilot being buried in the desert, the Pentagon said.
"One of these Iraqi citizens stated that they were present when Capt. Speicher was found dead at the crash site by Bedouins and his remains buried," the Defense Department said in a statement.
The military recovered bones and multiple skeletal fragments and Speicher was positively identified by matching a jawbone and dental records, said Rear Adm. Frank Thorp. He said the Iraqis told investigators that the Bedouins had buried Speicher. It was unclear whether the military had information on how soon Speicher died after the crash.
Some had said they believed Speicher ejected from the plane and was captured by Iraqi forces, and the initials were seen as a potential clue he might have survived. There also were reports of sightings.
While dental records have confirmed the remains to be those of Speicher, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Md., is running DNA tests on the remains recovered and comparing them with DNA reference samples previously provided by family members.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, conveyed condolences to Speicher's family in a statement from Baghdad. "Although we cannot fully understand the sense of loss, or the pain his family has shouldered throughout the years of waiting, we hope they can find solace in his dignified and honorable return home," he said.
Last year, then-Navy Secretary Donald Winter ordered another review of the case after receiving a report from the Defense Intelligence Agency, which tracks prisoners of war and service members missing in action.
Many in the military believed for years that Speicher had not survived the crash or for long after. Intelligence had never found evidence he was alive, and some officials felt last year that all leads had been exhausted and Speicher would finally be declared killed.
But after the latest review, Winter said Speicher would remain classified as missing, despite Winter's strong reservations about the pilot's status and cited "compelling" evidence that he was dead.
Announcing his decision, Winter criticized the board's recommendation to leave Speicher's status unchanged, saying the board based its conclusions on the belief that Speicher was alive after ejecting from his plane. The board "chose to ignore" the lack of any parachute sighting, emergency beacon signal or radio communication, Winter said.